Halloween has its fair share of annual traditions, from trick or treating, to pumpkin carving, and scare mazes. Yet no celebration of October 31st would be truly complete without a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror special. Whether they’re serving up a reverent film parody or a wholly original story, they are a staple ingredient of the holiday. Much like how you can’t have a proper Christmas without Home Alone or Dickensian Muppets!
Encompassing a whopping thirty episodes, each of which has been further divided into three chapters, there are a lot of them too. Which begs the question: of the 90 segments that have aired to date, are there any triumphant standouts? To get to the bottom of this, please join us as we look over the top 13 Treehouse of Horror segments. After all, it’s Halloween and everyone’s entitled to one good chuckle.
13. Treehouse of Horror X: Desperately Xeeking Xena
The prominent billing of guest star Lucy Lawless (at the height of her Warrior Princess fame) singles ‘’Desperately Xeeking Xena” out as an unmistakably ‘90s effort. And that’s saying something when you consider that it was already bookended by an extensive I Know What You Did Last Summer skit, as well as a (then timely) knock at Y2K hysteria. Indeed, the references in this episode must be borderline impenetrable for anyone who wasn’t alive during this very precise moment in history.
Yet just because ‘’Desperately Xeeking Xena’’ is a tad dated, doesn’t mean that it’s automatically bad. On the contrary, the superhero outing manages to squeeze an impressive mileage out of its relatively simple premise. Highlights include Bart’s heroic oath that he will only use his newfound stretching powers ‘’to annoy’’, and the ever-handy quote: ‘’Whenever you notice something like that, a wizard did it’’. That latter exchange is one that all writers should keep in their back pocket for whenever they need to deflect nitpicky internet criticisms. Oh, and there’s a catchy theme song to boot!
Vintage Quote – LUCY LAWLESS: ‘’Wizard!’’
12. Treehouse of Horror VI: Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores
What’s immediately striking about Treehouse of Horror VI is the dramatic leap that it represents in terms of animation quality. That’s not to say that the previous offerings were lacking in any way, but rather that this 1995 installment was considerably more adventurous. ‘’Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace’’ distinguished itself with vivid imagery, whilst ‘’Homer3” went so far as to adopt a completely different format (more on both of them later).
Then we have the delightful ‘’Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores’’ which, granted, is not as bold as either of its cohorts. It doesn’t stray from the established look that we associate with The Simpsons, nor does it flirt with any fresh techniques or showy gimmicks. However, what it does have going for it is a palpable sense of scale, as towering advertising mascots – that were galvanized to life by a freak lightning storm – embark on a devastating rampage throughout downtown Springfield.
The artwork is a veritable feast for the eyes, with titanic behemoths committing gratuitous acts of violence in every corner of the frame and each of the scenes being densely packed with background gags. In fact, you’ll have to pause on numerous occasions, just so that you can bask in the macabre insanity of it all.
Vintage Quote – HOMER: “‘I told you! Flanders has it! Or Moe…Go kill Moe.’’
11. Treehouse of Horror IX: Starship Poopers
Much like ‘’Desperately Xeeking Xena’’, this 1998 time capsule is deeply steeped in the zeitgeist of its era, to the point where it could risk alienating modern viewers. Luckily, the Jerry Springer tie-in hasn’t lost any of its relevancy in the intervening years (which is perhaps a damning indictment of our culture) and the central hook of Homer dragging his family onto the talk show – to participate in an intergalactic paternity squabble – remains uproarious to this day.
The segment is chock-full of terrific one-liners, like Dr. Hibbert’s routine prescription of ‘’Fire! And lots of it’, Julie Kavner’s impeccable delivery of ‘’the ceiling’s not a safe place for a young baby’’ and, of course, the immortal: ‘’Look Marge! Maggie lost her baby legs!’’. On a pure joke-for-joke basis, this has to rank amongst the funniest Treehouse of Horrors ever aired. Plus, it also boasts one of the strongest Kang and Kodos appearances since their debut.
Vintage Quote – JERRY SPRINGER: ‘’We have the extraterrestrial, extramarital backstage in a soundproof booth where he can’t hear us.’’ KODOS: ‘’I hear all!’’
10. Treehouse of Horror VI: Homer3
Every now and then, Treehouse of Horrors like to push the boat out a little and try something novel. The results of these experiments can range from bonafide classics (‘’The Raven’’) to noble failures that don’t quite fulfil their promise (Season 29’s ‘’Coralisa’’). ’Homer3’’ belongs in the former camp, thanks to its inspired conceit, ambitious dabbling in technology, and intelligent easter eggs – that are presumably hysterical if you have a PHD in theoretical physics.
Marking the hand-drawn series’ initial foray into computer animation, it depicts the Simpson patriarch crossing over into the trippy third dimension. Resembling an abstract version of the grid from Tron, this is a world populated by false equations, impossible sums, and sentient cubes that are reportedly ‘’the size of gorillas’’. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the more unique entries in the Treehouse of Horror pantheon and could actually stand to be explored in greater detail. Speaking of which, if there’s anything wrong with ‘’Homer3’’, it’s that the scanty runtime makes it feel like we’re on a compressed, whistle stop tour of this universe and barely get to scratch the surface of its potential. Regardless, this is still an extraordinary feat in terms of visual effects – especially with those transitions between the 2D and 3D realms – that is overflowing with imagination.
Vintage Quote – SELMA: ‘’It’s like he just disappeared into fat air.’’
9. Treehouse of Horror III: King Homer
The wrap-around narrative for Treehouse of Horror III is that the Simpsons are hosting a tedious Halloween party and are attempting to liven things up with a competition to see who can tell the scariest story. After Homer’s incoherent yarn leaves the room feeling underwhelmed, it’s up to Grandpa to salvage the evening with an exciting anecdote from his long life. Alas, he denies having any memorable experiences that are really worth sharing but does point out that he has ‘’seen a lot of movies’’.
And with those fateful words, the crotchety pensioner ushers in the Simpsons’ inaugural Halloween film spoof. Creating a reliable blueprint for later segments to follow, ‘’King Homer’’ is a textbook example of what a movie skewering ought to feel like. It flawlessly captures the aesthetic of its subject (with an appropriately monochrome colour palette, imitation musical score, and authentic title card), whilst succinctly boiling down the familiar plotline into a handful of punchy scenes. Not to mention, it also recasts everyone in amusing roles. I mean, is there anyone better suited to the part of a glutinous, hot-tempered ape than Homer J. Simpson?
Vintage Quote – MR BURNS: We wouldn’t think of leaving without the bait! Uh, that is, the bait-thing beauty. The bathing beauty! Heh, I covered that up pretty well.
8. Treehouse of Horror VI: Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace
Poking fun at the waning Nightmare on Elm Street franchise – in the midst of its downward spiral – this take on Freddy’s uneven legacy is a lot more critical than other Simpson parodies. Whereas the show typically lampoons its targets with a degree of fondness, the scribes behind ‘’Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace’’ didn’t pull any punches when it came to ridiculing Kruger’s increasingly silly outings.
By 1995, the supernatural boogeyman had totally regressed into an undignified caricature of himself, one who would regularly dispense lame puns and orchestrate the most absurd scenarios (including his own rap video). As such, the Treehouse of Horror entry arrived at the opportune moment to give the slasher villain the roasting he so thoroughly deserved. Mocking everything from his toe-curling quips, to his outlandish transformations, and zany kills: it somehow manages to execute the goofy formula better than most of the canonical sequels. Bonus credit is also due for composer Alf Clausen, who provides an especially well-observed pastiche of Nightmare’s signature theme music.
Vintage Quote – PRINCIPAL SKINNER: ‘’Children, I couldn’t help monitoring your conversation. There’s no mystery about Willie. Why, he simply disappeared. Now, let’s have no more curiosity about this bizarre cover-up.’’
7. Treehouse of Horror II: Bart’s Nightmare
Before they started taking cues from mainstream movies, Treehouse of Horror producers would often turn to anthology series, The Twilight Zone, for inspiration. Of the many Rod Serling homages, the definitive effort has to be a reworking of ‘’It’s a Good Life’’, entitled ‘’Bart’s Nightmare’’. In case you’re unfamiliar with this fan-favorite, it centers on a young boy who has been mysteriously imbued with godlike omnipotence, enabling him to bend reality according to his will. Everyone must therefore tread lightly in his presence, as though they were walking on the most delicate eggshells. Hell, the family cannot even take refuge in their own heads, as the child also happens to be an invasive mind-reader and will punish any wayward thoughts that displease him.
The original Twilight Zone episode is a creepy ‘’What if?’’ scenario that has left an indelible mark on pop culture. So, the only feasible way that The Simpsons could improve upon it for their iteration, was to take the next logical step and bestow these paranormal gifts upon Bart. Seeing as he’s already an impetuous little troublemaker without psychic abilities, there’s no telling what he’d be capable of when granted carte blanche to do whatever he wants. The showrunners clearly had a blast dreaming up the various possibilities of this, like how Bart is sanctioned to drive the school bus through rush hour traffic, or how Krusty is made to broadcast non-stop until he has a breakdown live on TV. In short, it’s the pitch-perfect ‘’casting’’ of the lead role in this segment that helps it excel.
Vintage Quote: MRS. KRABAPPEL: ‘’Well class, the history of our country has been changed again to correspond with Bart’s answers on yesterday’s test. America was now discovered in 1942 by ‘some guy’, and our country isn’t called America anymore, it’s ‘Bonerland.’”
6. Treehouse of Horror VII: The Thing and I
You may have noticed that a decent number of entries on this list fall into the category of parodies. However, it’s not a prerequisite for a Treehouse of Horror instalment to be explicitly based on another property. Take ‘’The Thing and I’’ for instance – which does contain a few sly nods to Basket Case – but nevertheless manages to forge an original identity of its very own. Recalling the eerie vibe of a campfire tale, it revolves around the Simpson kids investigating the attic, after growing suspicious that their parents might be using it to conceal a dark secret. One that rattles chains in the dead of night, subsists on a rationed diet of fish heads, and cackles maniacally whenever anyone ventures too close.
The short itself has an unusually intense mood for what is essentially a sitcom, as well as a disturbing antagonist that will really get under your skin. On that note, ‘’The Thing and I’’ is conspicuously light on comic-relief, with most of its runtime dedicated to unravelling a morbid conspiracy, as opposed to delivering belly laughs. Although they are ostensibly horror-themed, you don’t normally expect these Halloween specials to be scarier than they are funny. Yet aside from teeing up an admittedly excellent punchline (that upends our assumptions of who the real villain is), frights seem to have been the top priority here. And the family-friendly cartoon executes them with surprising effectiveness.
Vintage Quote – DR. HIBBERT: ‘’That means the evil twin is, and always has been, Bart! ‘’ BART: Oh, don’t look so shocked.
5. Treehouse of Horror VIII: Fly vs. Fly
Scoring extra points for its commitment to gross-out humor, Treehouse of Horror VIII demonstrates what networks are permitted to get away with pre-watershed, so long as their content is filtered through the wholesome prism of animation. The episode kicks off with a snide meta-jab at TV gatekeepers, in which a Fox censor tries to redact parts of the script, only for a disembodied hand to mutilate him in exponentially grislier ways. From there, things get more obscene, as The HΩmega Man’’ focusses on a nuclear holocaust wiping out Springfield’s population (save for a few disfigured leftovers) and ‘’Easy Bake Coven’’ regals us with a story of witches feasting on young children.
Rounding out the grim trifecta is ‘’Fly vs Fly’’, wherein Bart sneaks into a matter transporter and accidentally blends his DNA with that of a household insect – causing him to metamorphose into an unnatural hybrid. With all the disgusting gurgling sounds and the mucusy nozzle: the creature is abjectly repulsive and the segment refuses to shy away from its inherent yuckiness. Instead, it exploits the vile premise for all its worth, indulging in grotesque moments like when Homer kisses his mutated son on the brow, leaving behind a nauseating trail of sputum. Foul but simultaneously hilarious, the image sums up the rest of ‘’Fly vs Fly’’ in its entirety.
Vintage Quote – HOMER: ‘’Hmmm, 2 bucks. And it only transports matter?’’
4. Treehouse of Horror III: Dial Z for Zombies
Another sidesplitter from the third Treehouse of Horror, ‘’Dial Z for Zombies’’ is not the only time that the residents of Springfield have tussled with the living impaired, but it is the gold-standard for that weird little subgenre. When Bart flunks his school book report, and is offered a second chance to bump up his grade, he pays a visit to the library’s occult section, in search of more interesting literature. There, he reads aloud from a Necronomicon-esque tome and inadvertently conjures an army of the undead that wreaks havoc throughout the neighbourhood.
The ace writing duo of Sam Simon and Jon Vitti are on fire here, cramming the brisk 6 minutes with a ridiculous volume of outstanding jokes. For example, who could forget when the ravenous horde turns down Homer’s noble self-sacrifice, due to his lack of ‘’brains’’? Or the bit where two John Smiths get mixed up about whose grave is whose? In addition to being exceedingly well-scripted, there’s also a playfully spooky atmosphere (with the cemetery iconography, full-moon setting and cheesy EC comics ghouls) that makes this ideal viewing for a cozy Halloween night in.
Vintage Quote – BART: ‘’Dad, you killed the zombie Flanders!’’ HOMER: ‘’He was a zombie?’
3. Treehouse of Horror IV: Bart Simpson’s Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula isn’t a film that you’re meant to take seriously. At least I hope not, because the melodramatic direction, ostentatious visuals and ludicrous accents make it feel like an easy target for a good ribbing. Enter Treehouse of Horror IV, which marvelously teases the OTT blockbuster, whilst also having fun at the expense of other popular vampire flicks.
As they previously did with both zombies and aliens, the writers are able to extract priceless material out of the bloodsucker mythos. Featuring smart gags about everything from their blatant manipulations (‘’Did everyone wash their necks like Mr Burns asked?’’), to their peculiar habits and nonsensical rules: the laugh quota here is absolutely off the charts. All in all, it’s a remarkably crafted package that weaves together sharp, observational humour and enjoyable slapstick violence in a way that is guaranteed to leave you in stitches – no matter how many times you revisit it. Top it all off with a rich gothic ambience and you’ve got the makings of an October classic.
Vintage Quote – HOMER: ‘’Oh Lisa, you and your stories. ‘Bart is a vampire. Beer kills brain cells.’ Now let’s go back to that building… thingy. Where our beds and TV… is’’
2. Treehouse of Horror V: The Shining
What can be said here that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Arguably the most enduring segment from any Treehouse of Horror, this affectionate send-up is every bit as iconic as the legendary source material upon which it is based. Given that every last nano-second of the witty tribute has been so utterly entrenched in our collective consciousness – it’s safe to say that it’s probably done quite a bit of damage to The Shining’s prestige.
Truthfully, I find it quite difficult to make it through Stanley Kubrick’s opus without cracking a smile at least once or twice, and I instinctively refer to it by Groundskeeper Willie’s legally distinct, alternate title. That’s not an exaggeration by the way. I genuinely cannot stop myself from calling this film ‘’The Shinning’’. Likewise, the fact that the elevator of blood sequence – which was once so profoundly chilling – is only capable of mustering giggles from me now, is a testament to just how brilliant this satire is. A mini masterpiece in its own right!
Vintage Quote – We’re spoilt for choice, but here’s one often gets overlooked: MARGE: ‘’Husband on murderous rampage. Send help. Over.’’ CHIEF WIGUM: ‘’Whew, thank God that’s over. I was worried for a little bit.’’
1. Treehouse of Horror V: Time and Punishment
Confidently tackling an idea that has overwhelmed many cinematic releases, ‘Time and Punishment’’ is the best on-screen representation of the butterfly effect to date. For some reason, Hollywood hasn’t been able to get to grips with this scientific principle or do it proper justice. A Sound of Thunder was a tragic misfire, the Ashton Kutcher starring Butterfly Effect squandered its potential, and the rom-com About Time is honestly the closest we’ve got to a passable movie version. But even that pales in comparison to The Simpsons dazzling take on the subject, which inexplicably manages to do more with the premise in 5 minutes than any feature film.
After Homer’s clueless attempt to repair a toaster sends him hurtling backwards through time, the lovable halfwit accidentally creates a number of divergent futures, each more surreal than the last. To say that it’s high concept would be a huge understatement, but the writers navigate the complex storyline with poise and miraculously keep everything on rails throughout.
Indeed, Homer’s temporal misadventures are bursting with unexpected twists, inventive situations, and some of the cleverest jokes in TV history. On that note, there’s no better embodiment of The Simpsons quintessential irony than Homer fleeing a paradisal timeline, just because it doesn’t have doughnuts in it, only for the confectious treats to then start raining from the heavens the second that he leaves. Pure genius.
Vintage Quote: LISA: ‘’Are we taking the new Lexus to Aunt Patty and Selma’s funeral today?’’ HOMER: Hmm, fabulous house, well-behaved kids, sisters-in-law dead, luxury sedan. Whoo-hoo! I hit the jackpot.’’